The Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has vowed to go ahead with a rally in Pakistan’s tribal areas aimed at highlighting the human cost of US drone strikes despite a purported death threat levelled at him by the Taliban.
Mr Khan intends to join activists and party colleagues who plan to drive or walk to the main town in North Waziristan next month in protest at the US’s continuing policy of using drones to target suspected militants. The activists say even if militants are killed, scores of innocent bystanders also lose their lives.
Earlier this week it was reported the Taliban had said if Mr Khan travelled to North Waziristan he would be attacked. “If he comes, our suicide bombers will target him,” a Taliban spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan, was quoted as saying by Associated Press. The Taliban subsequently said they had been misquoted.
Either way, Mr Khan, who heads the Pakistan Movement for Justice party (PTI) and whose political momentum has gathered pace over the past 18 months, made clear he intended to take part in the rally and was willing to risk his safety.
“Everyone needs to know that our peace march is against the drones killing the ppl of [the tribal areas] and against a debilitating war imposed on Pakistan,” he said on Twitter. In a statement issued by his party today, Mr Khan said: “A man of faith doesn’t fear death. “It would be an honour to give the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life to protest American lack of care for the innocent men, women and children of Waziristan who have died in thousands by American drone attacks.”
Mr Khan announced the rally earlier this summer, saying he would take “representatives of human rights organisations and the media with us to Waziristan. We will march for peace”. Organisers hope a convoy of thousands of vehicles and individuals will descend on the town of Miranshah on 23 September. There was a similar rally in Islamabad last year.
Among the international organisations taking part is the London-based Reprieve. The group’s director, Clive Stafford Smith said last night the march was going ahead and raised questions about the authenticity of the purported threat levelled at Mr Khan.
“The bottom line is we are not stupid, but we are not going to be put off,” he said. “Also, I don’t think it’s the Pakistan Taliban saying this. It’s more likely to be some dissident establishment element from within Pakistan or the US.”
Mr Stafford Smith claim followed a subsequent comment from the Taliban spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan, who told local media that he had been misquoted in the AP report. He said he had told the reporter, who interviewed him at an undisclosed location in South Waziristan, that the Taliban’s ruling council would decide what action to take if Mr Khan takes part in the rally.
A number of observers had been surprised by the Taliban’s original quoted comment, given that both it and Mr Khan have spoken out against the drones and that his organisation has drawn support from religious conservatives.
The US drone strikes have become major source of angst and concern for many in Pakistan, who blame them for killing many civilians and see them as a blow against the country’s sovereignty. Under the administration of Barack Obama, Washington’s use of drones has hugely increased and earlier this year the president said they were targeted at people who were “trying to go in and harm Americans”. It was later revealed the US had said any males of military age who were in the area of the suspected militant were also to be considered valid targets.
While the Pakistani military publicly condemns the strikes, it is widely assumed they privately assist the CIA with targeting information. One of the most recent drone strikes took place on 29 July when six missiles were fired at a house in the village of Khushhali Turikhel in North Waziristan. Between four and seven people died, according to the Agence France-Presse.
There is no agreement on many people have been killed by the strikes or what percentage of them are militants. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism believes that from 2007 and until today between 2,524 and 3,247 people have been killed of whom 482 to 852 were said to be civilians. The total number of children reportedly killed has been 175.
Another of the international human rights groups due to take part is the US group’s Code Pink. In a statement outlining the intention of the rally, it said: “We want to reach out to people in Pakistan, especially [in] the areas hit by drone strikes, to show that we care about their lives. We want to show the American public how civilians are being targeted by drones.”